Was Michael Gove a great education secretary?

Francis Gilbert's picture

What makes a great politician? Definitions of greatness are going to vary widely, and some might argue that no politician can be great. I would like to posit some values which could be construed as  being components of greatness if one was to look to someone like Mandela as a great politician.

Effectiveness Gove's big legacy is structural change: his academies and free school programme was his big policy. But was it needed? The statistics suggest not. It was not a cost effective programme; billions was spent getting local authority (LA) schools to convert to academy status. Yet, research carried by LSN and others suggest that academisation does not necessarily raise standards. Similarly, the free school programme has not delivered. Many of them have been set up in areas where they are not needed, many have not been educationally effective, and significant minority have been classified as failing.  Problems engendered by a rising roll in many areas have not been addressed by the opening of free schools. The sidelining of LAs in the addressing of this problem has led to the ridiculous situation of Whitehall trying to address the shortage of school places in far flung northern cities. Bureaucratic madness. There is a staff recruitment crisis, which has not been addressed by Gove's reforms to teacher training. His decision to funnel trainees through schools rather than universities has resulted in administrative chaos and recruitment problems. Another big plank of his reforming agenda was performance-related pay, and yet the very organisation he set up to look into evidence-based teaching, the Educational Endowment Foundation, has shown it does not work; it’s not a cost-effective programme for raising standards. Other strategies like encouraging collaborative learning are far more effective. Changes to the school curriculum has resulted in real confusion about what should be taught and an overall diminution in standards as well as real demoralization of the profession who have struggled to cope or understand the pace of change.

Forward-thinking Gove is a politician trapped in ideas of the past; his slavish devotion to neo-liberal ideas makes his work tiresomely predictable. He is, like the Tory government generally, a neo-liberal puppet, a person who has a misplaced faith in marketisation and capitalist economics.  And yet we know that unbridled markets don’t work; marketization has been shown to have destructive effects in education in many ways. When learning becomes a commodity to be profited from you get all sorts of perverse and unwanted effects: corruption, short-termism, social segregation. Furthermore, Gove was – and still is – part of a government with a vicious social agenda against poor people; the cuts to working tax credits are the latest in a long line of cuts which have disproportionately affected people. This will inevitably affect children’s achievement at school. The one hard statistic we have about education is the correlation between parental income and pupil performance. Gove is not forward-thinking in terms of the curriculum or assessment. He has a misplaced faith in exams, not realizing that the backwash created from the exam system is very harmful to students’ education. It means that there is constant teaching to the test; I’ve witnessed the ridiculous situation of teachers in Year 7 giving out GCSE exam papers to prepare students for a test which is five years away! The exams he has set up are Victorian; he does not believe in making learn relevant or accessible to young people. Nor does he trust teachers to find more appropriate methods of assessment.

Being a unifying figure Gove did not bring the teaching profession together. He was a very divisive figure, demonising many teachers as the Blob, the enemies of promise, when they were trying their best. The pressure he put on schools has caused a climate of fear to infect our classrooms, where both teachers and students are motivated by anxiety that they will be punished and will fail. He redoubled efforts to set up a false competition between schools, pitting them against each other when we know the best practice is when schools collaborate. He made never fought for teachers; during his tenure teachers saw their conditions of service and their pay and pensions significantly reduced in real terms. As a result, many teachers struggle to make ends meet. He was -- and still is -- hated by the vast majority of students, teachers and parents; this was why he was sacked, because he was seen as such a toxic figure. Can someone as incompetent, divisive and extreme as him ever be called great? I think not.

Some further thoughts I gave this talk at the Michaela Community School, the free school set up by Katherine Birbalsingh, and was arguing against Jonny Porter, a Humanities teacher at the school. He gave a spirited speech which argued that Gove was great because he set high expectations for students and teachers, and he was innovative. I lost the debate in terms of the voting, with the audience being overwhelmingly supportive of what Jonny said and Gove's policies. They appeared to like him most because he introduced a knowledge curriculum and re-instated old fashioned pen and paper exams, sweeping away many vocational qualifications. I said that Gove needed to give teachers the freedom to teach what they felt was appropriate for their children and it was absurd for a politician in Whitehall to dictate what should be taught and how it should be taught -- which Gove effectively did. No one talked about the larger picture; the attack on the poor that Gove and every Tory in the cabinet has supported. The debate was decontextualised from its social setting. However, Jonny and many people in the audience agreed that Gove was highly divisive and was not liked by many students, teachers or parents. Jonny invoked the name of Bevan when talking about Gove; Gove attacked the teaching profession in the same way that Bevan took on the BMA to establish the NHS. Mnnnn. Not sure about that one. Bevan and the Atlee government had a massive mandate from the electorate; everyone, the public at large, had voted for the NHS.

Gove was part of a Coalition government and had no real mandate to privatise and attack the teaching profession. Gove was hated by far more people than Bevan who had the public on his side. Gove was sacked because ultimately parents did not like what he was doing -- it wasn't only the teachers he alienated. Furthermore, Gove's agenda was one of dismantling local democratic institutions (the LAs), whereas Bevan was intent upon introducing universal health care. Gove wanted to dismantle structures that enabled the teaching profession to collaborate, whereas Bevan pushed a fragmented medical profession together under the umbrella of the NHS. Jonny's point is interesting though because it's emblematic of the way the neo-liberals have appropriated and twisted the language of the left.

I think the video of it will go up soon on the MCS website; someone tweeted that at one point I looked sad -- which I did. It saddened me that there was such hostility to what I was saying: at one point, a member of the audience up and said that it was disgraceful that I had mentioned the headteacher who committed suicide after a bad Ofsted inspection (an addition I made to the above speech, which was written a few days ago). I had talked about this incident as being indicative of the fear that Gove and his minions created (it continues) in schools, where there is such ridiculous pressure to get good results that some professionals feel so desperate that it causes serious mental illness. This, obviously, isn't Gove's fault; it's the system that he presided over that creates this climate of fear, which is not a healthy or productive thing. A great politician would have addressed this.

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Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:51

You still seem to be simultaneously accepting and rejecting my point.

If you think that saying something you think plays to prejudices is what a politician's time in office should be judged by, then you disagree with my point that a politician's greatness in office should be judged on what they did, not what they said, thought or may have wanted to do. A point that you also said was so obvious that it was not worth making.

And, of course, if calling hostile academics "the blob" is what Gove should be judged on while education secretary, then can we assume that you think Bevan should be judged on calling hostile doctors "politically poisoned people"? Would you say that this, not creating the NHS, is how we should evaluate Bevan's time as health secretary?

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 13:54


Are you saying that the OECD waited eight or nine years before issuing its caveat about the PISA 2000 statistics? Surely it would have known that response rates were inadequate from the get-go? Why did they publish them at all if they were no good?

Actually, when the PISA 2006 results came out, OECD itself compared them to the 2000 results, while at the same time warning that they weren't directly comparable, not because of response rates, but because of differences in the tests. Confused? Join the club.

Warning that comparisons between the results of the 2006 tests and those of previous years were not strictly valid, as the nature of the tests varied, the OECD added: "However, average scores showed some countries moving sharply upwards, including Canada, Germany, Austria, and Denmark."


I'm not sure we can fairly blame Gove or DfE for using these figures if OECD went ahead and published them and then allowed people to use them in trend comparisons with PISA 2003 and PISA 2006 for many years before mentioning response rate deficiency and was itself drawing comparisons for some countries..

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 14:52

What I said was that "challenging vested interests and starting a debate" were good things, and not reasons to say somebody was not good in office.

That he did this seems to be clear from all the people complaining he did not create a consensus, so I left it at that.

There was little education debate before 2010 as the GTC, Ofsted, the DCSF, QCA and the National Strategies all largely agreed that the aims of education were many, and not necessarily academic; that generic skills were more important than knowledge, and that the correct ways of teaching were those recommended by Ofsted. The DCSF, the QCA and even certain unions agreed that grade inflation wasn't a problem. I also remember official reports denying the behaviour problems in schools and journalists who went undercover to reveal the extent of these problems being struck off as teachers by the GTC and condemned by the teacher unions.

I know when I started blogging in 2006 and tweeting in 2009, opinions that are common place now among teachers on social media would provoke outrage. Even mentioning things that teachers saw all over the place like poor discipline or cheating in coursework would get me condemned. The debate opened up a lot post 2010, some of that may just be down to social media giving frontline teachers a voice, but some of it must also be because Gove wouldn't accept fashionable opinions just because the powers that be in education said there was a consensus behind them.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 14:55

Barry, I think we can assume that Gove and the DFE were well aware that their use of OECD stats was invalid. That OECD gave them the opportunity to do it doesn't justify it. That said, Gove was only behaving like the rest of the political class, who have long concluded that easily understood sound bites and slogans are greatly preferable to carefully qualified and complex arguments. As an experienced journalist, Gove would be particularly conscious of this.

To some extent, I feel sorry for Michael Gove, even though I think he was a quite hopeless Education Secretary. Compared with the shape-shifting Cameron and the utterly cynical Osborne, Gove is a man of principle and honour. Somehow, the combination of his own education and his deep social insecurity produced not only bad policies but a personal disaster for him. God knows how his daughter must have felt when she saw her own teacher on TV carrying a "GOVE OUT!" placard.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 15:23


the combination of his own education and his deep social insecurity

Not sure what you are driving at here. Earlier you said:

the particular circumstances of his social background, upbringing, schooling and higher education made it almost impossible for him to approach the role of Education Secretary with the detachment necessary for success

If by 'the particular circumstances of his social background' you mean the fact he was adopted at 4 months old.... surely you are not saying that people adopted as babies are unfit for high office?

And what was wrong with his schooling? Wikipedia says he attended a state school before going on to Robert Gordon's College on a scholarship. RGC looks like a very good school. Maybe not Eton, but certainly posh enough for Gove not to feel totally out of his league when fraternising with Cameron and Osborne!

And what was wrong with his higher education. He went to Oxford.( Did you go to Cambridge or something?)

And anyway, since when were cabinet ministers required to show 'detachment'?

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 15:17

Your last post is all a bit vague, Andrew, and doesn't really answer my question. If you don't know which previously unchallenged "vested interests" Gove challenged, why not just say so? I myself can't remember a time since the 1988 Education Reform Act when politicians did not react to professional criticism by dismissing it as "vested interest." Indeed I seem to remember that the term "producer interest" first became current in Mrs Thatcher's time.

Your notion that prior to Michael Gove there was a cosy consensus about the aims and methods of education certainly doesn't correspond with my own experience during a lifetime's campaigning on education. The only time I can remember such a consensus was in the early post-war years, when almost the whole system was selective and geared to (wrongly) perceived economic needs. James Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976 started a debate about the aims and methods of education which has gone on ever since. I don't think any educational historian would support your perception but please quote one if I'm wrong. Gove's reactionary ideas about curriculum content and examinations were first rehearsed by the "Black Paper" writers of the 1970s. There's nothing new about them whatsoever.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 15:42

I'm talking about the period immediately before 2010. Knowing that there had been debate about teaching methods in other decades was no use at all at that time.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 15:58

Barry - have a look at the PISA 2006 stats, particularly Table 6.3a which shows trends between 2000, 2003 and 2006. Downloadable here - click on 'tables' under heading Chapter 6. You'll see there are no trend comparisons for the UK from 2000 or 2003 to 2006. The numerical data is replaced with 'm'.

If the Guardian resurrected the previously published 2000 data then they missed the significance of the missing data in order to make a comparison. It wasn't the OECD making the comparison in the Guardian piece, but the Guardian.

It appears, then, OECD had identified the problem earlier than 2009. What is puzzling is why they didn't publicise it more loudly as they did in 2009 when they gave an explicit warning not to compare the 2009 with 2000. Perhaps they did but it was ignored (but I've found no evidence from 2006 to uphold that supposition - yet).

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 16:39

No, it was OECD, not the Guardian. I put the quote above. It has quotation marks in the Guardian piece and is attributed to OECD.

In paraphrase they seemed to be saying that strictly speaking comparisons with earlier years weren't valid, but nevertheless...........etc.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 17:19

Barry - but the OECD quote you cited doesn't mention UK.

A Channel 4 Factcheck dated 12 December 2007 queried Gove's use of the PISA 2000 figures in a Commons exchange when he was Shadow Secretary for Education:

'In 2000 too few schools took part in the [PISA} survey, and in 2003, too few students took part - result, the OECD says, of 'survey fatigue'. Result: UK data from before 2006 aren't reliable, and can't be accurately compared.'

The Factcheck gave Gove a score of 4.5 (where 5 indicates the claim under examination has no basis in fact). It concluded:

'...a man of Gove's legendary intelligence really has no excuse for trotting out these obviously misleading stats one more time.'

Unfortunately, he trotted out the 'obviously misleading stats' again and again and again until the UK Stats Authority expressed 'concern' in October 2012, nearly FIVE years after Factcheck had rumbled them.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 16:53

First of all Barry, I wasn't saying that there was anything WRONG with Gove's background, upbringing, education etc and of course I don't think, and didn't say, that being adopted makes a person "unfit for high office"! Actually, I think Michael Gove is a great deal fitter for high office than Cameron or Osborne. I don't know why you are asking these questions.

What I was suggesting is that people who have had to work their way up from comparatively lowly origins may find it difficult when working closely in a competitive environment, such as politics, with people who have been born to great wealth, privilege and, especially, great social status. Having been to a private, if decidedly obscure, school and Oxford does not make you the social equal of sons of the aristocracy who went to very famous schools and more prestigious Oxford colleges. The fact that Gove has worked his socks off for everything he has achieved is admirable but it makes no difference socially. The routine jokes in Private Eye and Mrs Cameron's Diary about "Oiky" Gove wouldn't persist were there not a kernel of truth in them. It would not be surprising therefore if Gove felt a very powerful need to be constantly asserting himself and getting noticed and this would explain the headline chasing that characterised his time as Education Secretary.

It would also be completely understandable if Gove felt passionately that the one field in which he could compete with the Camerons, Osbornes and Boris Johnsons of this world was in erudition, something given to him by his education. It would make perfect sense that he should want other children from unprivileged backgrounds to have the same sort of education that had helped him to prosper and it would not be surprising if he became irritated with and scornful of education professionals who queried the appropriateness of his approach.

As for "detachment", I was thinking of the late Keith Joseph, who was viscerally opposed to the introduction of the GCSE but who was able to change his mind when his civil servants presented him with the evidence. When you are spending public money in massive amounts, you have to be able to take an emotionally detached view of what will produce the optimum result for the country as a whole. I don't think Michael Gove was able to do that because he was too emotionally close to the subject. I sincerely hope (and believe) that he will do much better as Justice Secretary.

But hey - this is all mere theory, Barry. I make no claim for it, except that it explains quite a lot.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 26/11/2015 - 17:10

That's flannel, Andrew. You may have perceived that there was a consensus in "the period immediately before 2010" - a conveniently elastic concept of time - but you won't find any "incontestable facts" (your term for evidence). Indeed, the great political strength of Gove's position was that he was merely carrying the ideas of his predecessors to their logical conclusion!

I am very disappointed that, for all your assiduous rubbishing of other people's arguments, you don't seem to have a clearly worked out and well evidenced position of your own. It's easy to find semantic and semiotic fault with what others say but, if you don't advance a clear alternative, you come across as enjoying awkwardness for its own sake.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 27/11/2015 - 20:27

Sorry, what am I being accused of failing to provide? I talked through a brief overview of the situation in that period, and you have neither identified which parts of that you take issue with, let alone suggested any reason to doubt what I said.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 28/11/2015 - 10:23

Michael and Andrew - the debate re traditional v progressive has been going on for a lot longer. Aristophanes, in his comedy 'The Clouds' (written 5th Century BC), pitches two characters, Right and Wrong, against each other.

The character Right idealises traditional education: “I’ll tell you about the way boys were brought up in the old days… children were supposed to be seen and not heard. Then, all the boys of the district were expected to walk together through the streets to their music-master’s, quietly and decorously… [the teacher] made them learn some of the old songs by heart … that’s the sort of discipline that I used to rear the men who fought at Marathon.”

Right claims education has gone soft - that young men loll about in the Agora and are indulged (perhaps this is a forerunner of 'child-centred' education).

Don't be fooled into thinking Aristophanes thinks Right is right. Aristophanes mocks both Right and Wrong. Wrong is a word twister (a satire on the Socratic method) and Right is revealed as being rather too interested in his pupils' bodies.

Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 01/12/2015 - 13:00

I was referring more generally to your method of argument, which appears to be (I stress the word "appears") to mischaracterise what others have said and then attack it in a rather nit-picking fashion. What you seem to be reluctant to do is put forward a position of your own and support it with evidence. For example, you have not answered either of the two questions I put to you on Nov. 26th. I will repeat them in hope:

1. Which previously unchallenged “vested interests” did Gove challenge? How did he do it and what improvements resulted?

2. Was there no educational debate taking place before Gove? If there was, what fresh perspectives did he bring to the debate? How did he shape the debate in a way that differentiated his approach from that of his various New Labour predecessors? -

Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 01/12/2015 - 13:45

Yes, I read "The Clouds" at school, although we weren't allowed to discuss the sexual proclivities of Right! And Aristophenes is not the only one: Plato also complains about the "lack of respect" of "today's youth". However, there have also been long periods during which there has been a settled consensus about the aims and methods of schooling. Such a period was the early post-war era up to the end of the 1950s, when no-one questioned what went on in grammar schools and no-one cared what went on in secondary moderns.

The arrival of comprehensive schooling, with its implicit threat to ingrained notions of social hierarchy, let alone the haphazard and chaotic way in which it was introduced, destroyed the consensus and successive governments have not managed to re-establish it.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 27/11/2015 - 16:14

Thanks David, you've put better what I was trying to say; I don't think it was a conspiracy, that would suggest it was secretive. The drive to marketise education has never been hidden by Gove; the academies and free schools agenda was this "neo-liberal" drive. It has effectively privatised large swathes of the education system, which is now run by unaccountable chains/providers who nominally are not profit-making, but in reality pay their top brass eye-watering sums. They also can hire their own private companies to do all sorts of admin for schools, which can be profit-making.

Guest's picture
Fri, 27/11/2015 - 20:02

This is what Andreas Schleicher, the coordinator of PISA, said in an email to Jeevan Vasagar (quoted in the Guardian) when Vasagar asked him whether the UK PISA data for 2000 should be discounted: “It is hard to derive any interpretation of these data that wouldn’t imply a decline in the relative standing of the UK internationally.”

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 28/11/2015 - 10:02

Guest - refer to my reply on 'Taking the PISA' thread, 28/11/15 9.57 am.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 28/11/2015 - 10:06

The print copy of Schools Week, 27 November 2015, covered all the debates that took place at the Michaela Free School. It doesn't seem to be available on line but may appear at some later date.

Guest's picture
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 17:01

Andrew - at 09.22 am on 26 Nov, you say that you are "of the view that Gove failed to achieve great reform"

How does that square with the findings of the Commons Select Education Committee:

"208. The landscape of schooling in England has been transformed over the last five years.
As an administrative feat the delivery of so many schools into academy status has been
remarkable ..."



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